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by F. Brett Cox

F&SF January 2001

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Short Fiction
Thursday 16 August 2001

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, September 2001

Reviewed by F. Brett Cox
(Special to Locus Online)

F&SF’s second special author issue of the year (the March 2001 issue honored Lucius Shepard) spotlights Kate Wilhelm, and deservedly so. In his “Appreciation” of Wilhelm, F&SF editor/publisher Gordon Van Gelder, who edited several of Wilhelm’s books at St. Martin’s Press, offers an informed overview of Wilhelm’s work. He notes not only her extensive body of fiction (detailed in an accompanying bibliography compiled by William G. Contento) but her crucial role in the development of modern science fiction as one of the originators (with spouse Damon Knight) of first the Milford and then the Clarion SF writing workshops. It’s a much-needed acknowledgement—the stories Wilhelm published in Orbit, the series of original anthologies edited by Knight during the 1960’s and 70’s, largely defined the kind of literate, character-driven fiction that came to the foreground of SF in the 1970’s and 80’s and that still marks much of the best of contemporary SF.

The centerpiece of the issue is a new Wilhelm novella, “Yesterday’s Tomorrows,” that tells the story of Hal Whitcombe, a history professor who moonlights doing research for film and television documentaries, and Tilly Dunning, a research scientist. When Hal picks up Tilly hitchhiking after the latter “lost my job, lost my boyfriend, had my car stolen, and my grandmother died,” he discovers, gradually, that his passenger is the daughter of a well-known politician and the granddaughter of a renowned scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project. On her way to California to claim the house left to her by her recently-deceased grandmother, Tilly is also coping with the wrath of Dr. Mandrill, a self-aggrandizing scientist who fired her when she accused him of falsifying data from his stem cell research. (I will note without comment that I began writing this review on the day that the U.S. President went on national TV to announce national policy regarding federal funding of stem cell research. Sometimes it just happens like that.) Hal is drawn to both Tilly and her story and winds up putting his own research skills to use helping Tilly discover just what Mandrill’s true agenda is and how it is connected to her grandfather, who was one of Mandrill’s graduate professors.

It is a tribute to Wilhelm’s artistry that she uses the above material not for a 600-page thriller, but for a 60-page novella. By alternating sections of Hal’s first-person narration with a third-person recounting from Tilly’s point of view, Wilhelm deftly and economically lets us know what we need to know about her characters—Hal’s yearning for the satisfaction of both a relationship and a puzzle solved, Tilly’s cautious distance from both people and events. And while the story does have thriller-type elements (including a violent and dramatic final confrontation between Tilly and Mandrill), they are in the service of larger issues: Tilly is propelled not only by her struggle with Mandrill and her emerging relationship with Hal but also by the shade of her grandmother and her fear that her grandmother’s notions of fate and alternate universes—“'She said what we call now is just one of yesterday’s tomorrows'”—may have been correct, may in fact have brought her to her present dangerous moment. “Yesterday’s Tomorrows” should both please Wilhelm’s admirers and serve as a fine introduction for those unfamiliar with her work.

Interestingly, the other short stories in the issue could almost be said to constitute a tribute to another SF writer of quiet but lasting influence, Robert Sheckley. Sheckley himself is represented by “Mirror Games”, a clever and interesting science fiction take on love after death with an ending that recalls, of all things, the climactic sequence of Orson Welles’s film The Lady from Shanghai. And three of the four remaining stories might be fairly described as Sheckleyesque. Michael Kandel’s “Mayhem Tours” is an unapologetically straightforward satire in which a small European country boosts its economy by letting rich tourists hunt and kills its citizens. Alex Irvine, one of the strongest new voices in SF, offers in “Elegy for a Greenwiper” a tightly-paced, can’t-drive-a-nail-through-it SF adventure in which offworld colonists are forbidden to interact with any “natural” environment because, in so doing, humans inevitably destroy both their environment and themselves: “A taste of green is the first taste of mortality.” Interestingly, the story recalls a much earlier Sheckley contribution to F&SF, “Holdout” (1957), in which a Caucasian spaceship crew member declines to ship out with a member of his own race as atonement for past racism on Earth. Lawrence Miles’s “Grass” is written with a self-reflexivity that we would not expect to find in a Sheckley story; however, its smart and engaging recounting of the efforts of a female French explorer to beat Lewis and Clark (and, by extension, Thomas Jefferson) to the punch in managing the discovery of a mastodon in the early 19th century American wilderness uses an SF scenario as a vehicle for satirical social comment in the best Sheckley tradition. The final story in the issue Laird Barron’s “Shiva, Open Your Eye,” is an elegant tale of Stapledonesque horror (if there is such a thing) that bears more than one reading.

The issue also contains book reviews by Charles de Lint and Elizabeth Hand (the latter of whom earns my undying admiration by titling her discussion of Jack Zipes’s new book on children’s literature “Anarchy in the Pre-K”), a film column by Lucius Shepard (on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and Jeff VanderMeer’s comments on Edward Whittemore’s The Jerusalem Quartet in one of my favorite F&SF features, “Curiosities.”

—F. Brett Cox

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